Welcome to San Francisco, a city of innovators, creatives, free spirits, and trailblazers. It's a city that sets precedents, starts revolutions, and develops apps you can't live without. It's a city that loves good food and drink — it has more restaurants and farmer's markets per capita than anywhere else in North America — and a city that celebrates DJ culture as much as highbrow culture. It's one of the most popular U.S. cities to visit — and one of the most expensive to live in.
Within this 7x7-mile peninsula, you find historic Victorians painted like Easter eggs, soaring high-rises, crooked streets, hidden stairways, and stunning views and hills pretty much everywhere. Fog hovers over the city most mornings and evenings, keeping it perpetually mild — even cold at times — in the summer. When you pack, remember the famous quote Mark Twain never actually said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."
San Francisco boasts enough museums, parks, and other attractions to keep you occupied for weeks. Check out this list of the top places to experience on your San Francisco vacation. It includes options for families and couples, outdoor types, culture lovers, and history buffs with a wide range of budgets.
Top San Francisco Tourist Attractions
San Francisco boasts tourist attractions that are as diverse as the city itself.
Golden Gate Bridge
First and foremost, you have to visit the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Take a scenic drive over the bridge into Sausalito, but don't make the drive yourself. Parking is extremely limited near both ends of the bridge. Your best bet is to take Golden Gate Transit (routes 30, 70, and 101) from downtown. All buses stop at the northbound Toll Plaza. From there, you can visit the welcome center for historical information, sign up for a guided walking tour, or walk or bike along the bridge and back.
Extend your day by relaxing on the lawn at Crissy Field, or explore the wooded Presidio hills. If you have kids in tow, take them to the House of Air indoor trampoline park, located in an old airplane hangar.
While gazing across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see Alcatraz Island in the near distance. Even locals agree it's a must-see. Best known as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz was also a Civil War fortress, a bird sanctuary, and home to the first west coast lighthouse. The only way to get to the island is by private ferry via Alcatraz Cruises, departing from Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33. Be sure to book well in advance, as tours do sell out.
If it's your first time in San Francisco, you have to say hello to the sea lions at Pier 39. They're adorable, and they're a local phenomenon. The sea lions started hanging out in the area in 1989 due to a surplus of a herring in the area. Most days, the population includes about 300 marine mammals.
While you're in the neighborhood, browse two levels of dining, shopping, and entertainment — Pier 39 is extremely touristy — and take postcard-perfect photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline. If you're hankering for a bowl of clam chowder, stop by Fisherman's Wharf a few blocks away. Additionally, bike rentals, sailing excursions, and bay cruises are all available at Pier 39.
Golden Gate Park
You could spend a weekend or even longer in Golden Gate Park and still not run out of things to do. The third most visited U.S. park, this attraction includes two museums — deYoung Museum and California Academy of Sciences — as well as a botanical garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Japanese Tea Garden, all worth a visit.
In between these sites, from "the panhandle" that borders Haight Ashbury down to the Pacific Ocean three miles away, you can find grassy meadows, paved and dirt running trails, waterfalls, gardens, lakes, a few playgrounds, a couple of historic windmills, and buffalo — American bison, actually, located midway through the park in a grassy field near Spreckels Lake.
Spend an afternoon at the Japanese Tea Garden, followed by a pedal boat ride in Stow Lake. Explore the Conservatory of Flowers, and then bike down and along the Great Highway paralleling the ocean. (Hint: The park is closed to car traffic on Sundays.) If you're hungry, visit Beach Chalet (best for breakfast) or Park Chalet, both on the Great Highway at Fulton Street.
San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Tours
If you're overwhelmed by the choices, let a tour guide lead the way. The San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Tour lets you explore some of San Francisco's top attractions on board a double-decker bus. Listen to live commentary about sights along the way, and get a chance to "hop off" at 24 different stops, including Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Haight-Ashbury, and North Beach. When you're done exploring, hop back on another bus.
Top Free Things to Do in San Francisco
San Francisco is an expensive city to live in, but you can enjoy great music, dancing, and other events without spending a dime.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
The most widely attended free event in San Francisco takes place the first weekend in October in Golden Gate Park. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass offers three full days of roots, Americana, pop, blues, and, bluegrass music. Past performers have included Cheap Trick, Duran Duran, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Bela Fleck, and Dave Alvin, to name a few.
Fillmore Jazz Festival
Around the Fourth of July weekend, catch the Fillmore Jazz Festival, the West Coast's largest free jazz festival. It's always packed with top talent on multiple stages, and you can catch traditional and contemporary jazz, swing, and DJ music and browse more than 12 blocks of fine arts and crafts vendors.
Stern Grove Festival
One of the highlights of San Francisco's summer entertainment lineup is the Stern Grove Festival, which offers a varied musical palette under Sigmund Stern Grove's eucalyptus trees. On any Sunday afternoon from mid-June through mid-August, relax on a picnic blanket and listen to the San Francisco Symphony, an Afro-pop combo, funk, roots music, or classic soul. Hint: Get there early to get a good spot.
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Another summer-long festival, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival takes place in Yerba Buena Park. More than 75 events offered on summer afternoons include poetry readings, jazz ensembles, and circus acts. If you're spending the day at SF MOMA, this is a great spot for a lunch break.
From April through October, San Francisco's many neighborhoods hold free street festivals with live music, local art vendors, and street food. Each festival reflects the neighborhood's identity. Top picks include the Carnaval parade and street fair in the Mission district, the classic North Beach Festival, the Castro Street Fair, and the fashion-forward Union Street Festival.
San Francisco Mime Troupe
When you're in town, track down the schedule for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, America's oldest street theater troupe. Founded in 1959, SF Mime Troupe performs spy thrillers, musical comedies, and political theater — always free of charge and usually in local parks.
Top Things to Do with Kids in San Francisco
Beyond the famous attractions, San Francisco is a surprisingly kid-friendly city.
Walt Disney Family Museum
What kid doesn't love Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck? At the Walt Disney Family Museum, you can check out early Disney drawings, cartoons, films, and music, as well as learn about Walt Disney himself. Rotating exhibits have included the work of Eyvind Earle, the lead stylist for "Sleeping Beauty" and the concepts that led to "Lady and the Tramp" and "Peter Pan." It also features a spectacular model of Disneyland.
Play with the wonders of science at the Exploratorium, located at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. The museum features more than 600 hands-on exhibits. Step inside a tornado, turn upside down on a curved mirror, and walk across a fog bridge. Hint: Go on a weekday (except Monday) or early Sunday to avoid the crowds.
Children's Creativity Museum
Located in SoMa, the Children's Creativity Museum is a hands-on space where children can design clay motion animations, invent a new machine, and tackle any number of multimedia projects. Artists and educators staff studios and exhibits, giving your children expert guidance when they need it.
Koret's Children's Corner
Tucked away in Golden Gate Park, you can find the renovated Koret Children's Corner, which stars one of the few remaining old-time carousels. The park also offers plenty of slides, merry-go-rounds, and other equipment to keep your kids entertained for hours.
San Francisco Marine Life
For a glimpse of San Francisco Bay's marine life, take your kids to watch the sea lions at Pier 39. These cute marine mammals don't do much except bark and lounge in the sun, but most kids love it, nonetheless. While you're in the neighborhood, stop by Aquarium of the Bay for more diverse sea life viewing. Try not to get lost in Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze, and step out a tune on the musical stairs.
Top Things for Couples to Do in San Francisco
One look at the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the city skyline, and the sailboats gliding across the bay and it's easy to see what makes San Francisco one of the country's most romantic cities.
Top of the Mark
Celebrate your arrival at Top of the Mark, located on the 19th floor of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel in Nob Hill. This elegant lounge offers iconic views in every direction — and it's especially stunning at night.
Palace of Fine Arts
Many weddings have taken place at the historic rotunda at the Palace of Fine Arts. Take time to admire its impressive architecture and the swans in the lagoon. It's a popular spot for photos — and proposals.
No matter where you wander, San Francisco has spectacular views at every turn. Admire one of the best from the trail at Lands End. From Sutro Park, take the Sutro Baths Trail to Sutro Baths, where you can explore the historic ruins of what was once an elaborate swim center.
Much like the views, San Francisco has no shortage of excellent dining establishments. For a romantic taste of Europe in the heart of the Financial District, visit Belden Place, a narrow alley packed with restaurants and cafés. Dine at Plouf, a Parisian bistro specializing in mussels and seafood dishes. If you're lucky enough to catch San Francisco on a warm day — like in early fall — dine al fresco.
For a splurge with your significant other, take a seaplane tour of the bay. Seaplane Adventures takes you soaring above the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the San Francisco skyline, and the Pacific coast. On the sunset champagne tour, you can see the sights while enjoying a crisp glass of bubbly – just make sure to plan a ride home before hopping on the plane. Seaplane Adventures offers shuttle service from Pier 39. After your flight, enjoy a romantic early dinner in Sausalito before taking a ferry back to the city. It's pricey, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Top San Francisco Neighborhoods
San Francisco contains dozens of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own character. Check out a few of San Francisco's most vibrant neighborhoods when you're in town. Be sure to pack your walking shoes, an appetite, and a sense of adventure.
Things to Do in North Beach
To learn about San Francisco's bohemian past and its Italian heritage, walk up to North Beach. Locals and visitors spend North Beach afternoons soaking up its character, gorgeous architecture, and fantastic food.
Check out the local artists at Washington Square Park, the neighborhood's focal point. Grab coffee at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store, or enjoy a full meal at Café Greco, Caffe Puccini, or Molinari Delicatessen.
On Columbus Avenue, the infamous City Lights bookstore was at the heart of the beatnik movement. Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded City Lights in 1953. Bonus: You're a short walk away from Chinatown, which is well worth a visit to experience the culture, vibrant colors, busy produce and fish markets, and dim sum.
Things to Do in the Mission District
Named for Mission Delores, the Mission District has gentrified over the past 10 years, with high-end coffee shops and restaurants crowding out the Latino bakeries, retail shops, and taquerias. Regardless, the Mission's Latino roots remain strong.
Make your first stop Mission Delores, the oldest surviving structure in San Fran (circa 1776) and the oldest intact Mission Chapel of the 21 established under Father Serra. It's also home to the only cemetery within the city limits.
To get a feel for what's left of the "real" Mission, head toward the outer Mission, around 24th Street and higher. That's where you find La Taqueria, considered the best place in the city for a taco or burrito—high praise in a city serious about its burritos. Other top spots include Roosevelt's Tamale Parlor, open since 1922, and Old Jerusalem, a low-key Middle Eastern restaurant. Saint Francis Fountain is a popular, old-school, late-night diner (the real deal), and Lucca Ravioli has served up handmade pasta for nearly a century.
To satisfy your inner hipster, head to Valencia Street near 16th Street. In this part of the Mission, you find cool thrift stores, boutiques, Ritual Roasters for good strong coffee, and enough first-class restaurants to keep your spirits up for days. In the daytime hours, relax at nearby Delores Park for the views and people-watching, followed by the best ice cream on the planet at Bi Rite Creamery. Relative newcomer Humphry Slocombe, at 24th and Harrison, is another favorite.
Things to Do in Haight-Ashbury
Once you've seen the corner of Haight and Ashbury, where thousands of young people gathered in 1967 during the Summer of Love, what else is there? Plenty if you're into counterculture history and eclectic shopping and dining. Today, at that iconic street corner, you find a T-Shirt shop and a Ben & Jerry's.
Continue up and down Haight Street to browse vintage clothing shops and funky boutiques. Don't miss Amoeba Music, one of the few remaining new and used record stores — and a very large one at that. You may want to stop in Booksmith, a well-loved independent bookstore, if you love to read. In the spirit of the neighborhood, pay homage to the Grateful Dead House at 710 Ashbury, where the band's five founders lived in the 1960s.
The hippie movement ended with the "Death of Hippie" celebration at Buena Vista Park at the far end of Haight. Today, it's a perfectly peaceful park on a hill where you can escape the surrounding hubbub. When you get hungry, visit the Alembic for delicious small plates.
Things to Do in South of Market (SoMa)
South of Market — a swath of big city blocks that stretches from Market Street between 1st and 10th Streets down to the water — doesn't have the cultural flavor of Mission, North Beach, or Chinatown, but it does have culture — and lots of it. One of the area's main attractions, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, contains seven floors of internationally recognized art. In addition to 142,000 square feet of gallery space, the museum offers nearly 45,000 square feet of art-filled free public spaces.
Surrounding SF MOMA are the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of the African American Diaspora, the Children's Creativity Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at Yerba Gardens, and the California Historical Society. You can also find small galleries all over SoMa. Check local listings for evening art openings.
If you feel like kicking back and watching a movie, you can enjoy a larger-than-life experience at the Metreon, a 16-screen facility with an IMAX theater. The building also has a few quick-bite restaurants.
While exploring SoMa, walk six or seven blocks to reach AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Check out McCovey Cove, and have dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, ranging from the no-frills Polo Grounds Pub & Grill to the neighborhood favorite MoMo's to innovative eateries such as Saison and District.
Things to Do at the Embarcadero
You can see the Ferry Building's clock tower from miles away. Let it guide you to the foot of Market Street, where you find a lively shopping, dining, and outdoor entertainment district. On Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the Ferry Building hosts a spectacular farmers' market, with locally grown produce, fresh meats, and artisan and prepared foods. The market is so high quality and diverse, many of the city's chefs shop there.
After the farmers' market, explore the building's merchants, which include Acme Bread Company, Beekind honey, Cowgirl Creamery, Book Passage, and others selling skin care products, chocolate and more.
Stroll along the Embarcadero to find dozens of spots to watch the boats and the Bay Bridge. Justin Herman Plaza, across from the Ferry Building, always has vendors selling jewelry and paintings.
Visit the SF Railway Museum to learn about the city's rail transit history, followed by a ride in a vintage car. It's located at Market Street and Embarcadero in the Hotel Vitale building.
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